What to Cook When You Don’t Feel Like Cooking

3 December, 2018

[updated May 30, 2019] Set up “Build-Your-Own Dinner Bars” and watch your kids happily eat their dang dinner for once in their lives.

I get sick of the dinnertime fight with my kids. There, I said it. Some nights, I am O-VER IT. I gotta find something to make for dinner when I’m struggling to summon the energy to cook.

People say this to me a lot: “Oh, you’re a chef! Your kids must be such good eaters!” To which I always reply, “Yeah, but… no, because they’re children.”

My kids (aged 2 and 4 and insanely stubborn) aren’t actually picky eaters. There are very few things they truly won’t eat, or have genuine aversions to.

What they are, though, are frustratingly indepent little thinkers who love to choose dinnertime as the exact moment to push every boundary I have.

Ever seen this meme? This is my life at 6pm every night:

Seriously, just eat it, for the love of God. Credit: the hilarious @sometimeskidsaredicks

Maybe it’s my fault; maybe they know that dinner hour is the time of the day when my defenses are at their lowest. But after being reasonably great kids all day, eating normal breakfasts’ and lunches and snacks, they tend to take a stand when it comes to eating any dinner that’s not head crushingly boring, like breaded chicken.

I am so sick of breaded chicken.

So, rather than fight with them every night about dinner (and rather than make breaded chicken every night for the next 18 years), I started doing this one little thing that actually got my kids to eat their dinner:

I took them to the bar.

Oh, I kid, I kid. I didn’t actually take them to a BAR.


I made a “Build-You-Own Dinner Bar” in the kitchen, handed them a plate, and told them to help themselves.

What’s a Build-Your-Own Dinner Bar, you ask, and how it is going to get my kids to eat?

And, even more importantly, how’s this idea gonna get me out of figuring out what to cook tonight?

A Build-Your-Own Dinner Bar is akin to setting up a buffet in your kitchen and letting every family member decide what they’ll add to their own plate, within reason.

It goes hand-in-hand with one of my guiding mealtime principals, which I get from Ellyn Satter: “You choose what time the meal is and what’s being served. They choose what food they’ll eat and how much.”

It’s part of the Division of Responsibility, a game changer as far as picky eaters are concerned. It gives kids the power to make decisions around food- but within a framework that you set-up and control. This gives kids autonomy while letting them know they are still being guided by you, the parent.

And a DIY, Build-Your-Own Dinner Bar goes hand in hand with this philosophy. You decide what goes on the Dinner Bar. They decide how they’ll put their dinner together and, through that, are more motivated to actually eat what’s on their plate, since they put it together.  

Plus, DIY Dinner Bars are fun!

Before we get into the examples, you’re gonna love this: a FREE video training series where I’m breakin’ it down- every secret kitchen tip, hack, meal planing advice, etc. All in 4 super short videos! Click here to access.

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Here are a few examples of Build-Your-Own Dinner Bars that you can make in your own kitchen this week:

Baked Potato Bar

Baked potatoes, either white potatoes or baked sweet potatoes

Toppings like sour cream, minced chives, butter

Fillers like browned sausage or sauteed spinach

Check out these posts about building a Baked Potato Bar:

credit: MoneywiseMom.com

Baked Potato Bar from Moneywise Moms

23 Amazing Ways to Eat a Baked Potato for Dinner from Buzzfeed

credit: Buzzfeed.com

Chili Bar

Different styles of chili, like beef, vegetable, or sweet potato

Toppings like sour cream, shredded cheese, diced red onion, diced avocados

Check out these posts about building a Chili Bar:

credit: Buzzfeed.com

Epic Slow Cooker Chili Bar from Buzzfeed

credit: BeefLovingTexans.com

How to Throw a Chili Bar Party from Beef Loving Texans

Pasta Bar

Different types of cooked pasta shapes like angel hair, rotini, farfelle

Sauces like marinara, alfredo, garlic & oil

Additions like roasted veggies or meatballs

Toppings like shredded cheese or toasted breadcrumbs

Check out these posts about putting together a Pasta Bar:

credit: theDIYMommy.com

Make A Family Pasta Bar from the DIY Mommy

credit: ChinDeep.com

Slow Cooker Mac and Cheese Bar from Chin Deep

Taco/Fajita/Burrito Bar

Tortillas, either soft or crunchy

Fillers like browned beef, chickpeas, seared chicken, sweet potatoes (psst, this is my homemade taco seasoning!)

Toppings like diced avocado, sour cream, diced red onion.

Check out these posts about putting together a Taco/Fajita/Burrito Bar:

credit: Desumama.com

Easy Fajita Bar from Desumama

credit: HandmadeHome.com

Easy Burrito Bowl Bar from The Handmade Home

Pizza Bar

Flatbreads, like naan bread or a pre-made crust

Pizza sauce

Toppings like shredded mozzarella, ricotta, oregano, mushrooms and sausage

Check out these posts about putting together a Pizza Bar:

credit: MomtoMomNutrition.com

Build Your Own Pizza Bar from Mom to Mom Nutrition

credit: LaurenConrad.com

Build-Your-Own Pizza Party from Lauren Conrad

I love these suggestions! And trust, they work. Let your kids do half the work while you reap the rewards. You’ve earned it, mama.

1 Comment

  • Reply
    5 December, 2018 at 3:21 pm

    Brilliant even for older kids who have different tastes!! Gonna give it a try!! 👍🏻

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